Sermon preached Easter Sunday April 5, 2015
First United Methodist Church, Duluth
Texts: John 20:1-18
“Though no Church has seen fit to canonize him, he was nevertheless a saint.” The writer and editor William Maxwell wrote these words about the Nineteenth Century Russian physician, short-story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). Pretty strong praise.
I rather like the poem Louis Simpson wrote, based on an incident in Chekhov’s life.. I know I am taking a risk here, all this literary stuff right off the bat, but I think you will enjoy this poem. If you don’t, I hear the muffins are worth the wait.
Chocolates Louis Simpson
Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted. Finally
he said, “Do you like chocolates?”
They were astonished and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, “Yes.”
“Tell me,” he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
“what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?”
The conversation became general.
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,
but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.
As they were leaving he stood by the door
and took their hands.
In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
I think I’d like to talk about chocolate today. Isn’t that different? I’d like to talk about chocolate rather than asking what it may mean to say “Christ is risen” in this maddening world of ours – in this world of ISIS or ISIL soldiers beheading people, in this world where nearly 150 are dead at a Kenyan college due to an attack by Islamic militants from Somalia who targeted non-Muslims and in particular Christians, in this world where outside of the building on campus that houses the diversity office a Duke University student hung a noose while their integrated basketball team prepared for the final four.
Of course, I could avoid all that. It’s not like I have to choose between talking about Easter or talking about chocolate. I could talk about Easter as if I were talking about chocolate, or about marshmallow peeps, as something sweet and delicious that no one finds challenging. But that really isn’t Easter. An Easter that doesn’t speak to the world as it is isn’t really Easter. Besides I need an Easter that speaks to the depth of my heart, my mind, my soul. In need as Easter that speaks to a sometimes messed-up and maddening world, a world in which a young German pilot decides his life isn’t worth living anymore, and takes dozens of people with him into death, a world where I hear a story of a young woman who goes missing from Dinkytown and my first reaction is fear because my daughter lives not too far from there and then there is a sense of relief when we find out there was no foul play but that quickly becomes heartache as you wonder what happened to lead that young woman to take her life in the Mississippi.
Talking about chocolate might be easier, but I really do want to know what it means to say “Christ is risen” and say it in our world today.
To say “Christ is risen” is to talk about hope, not an easy optimism that everything will turn out all right, but a hope caked with mud, a hope that sees the worst the world has, and still gives us the courage to act to make the world better. The story doesn’t move from a Palm Sunday parade to Easter lilies. It moves through betrayal, agony, injustice, cruelty and death to hope.
To say “Christ is risen” is to talk about joy, not joy that ignores the difficulties in our lives and in our world, but a joy that sees fully, and perceives moments for joy. I appreciate the words of Darcey Steinke in her memoir, Easter Everywhere: Life is brutal, full of horror and violence. Life is beautiful, full of passion and joy. Both things are true at the same time. (219)
To say “Christ is risen” is to sense deep down in our bones that love wins. This is the source of our hope and joy – love wins. Love often seems down for the count. Aggressive power and violence seem so dauntingly strong, but love is the true lasting power. It will not finally be defeated. It will rise.
Because of that, there are always fresh possibilities. To say “Christ is risen” is to trust in a God of love who is actively engaged with the world. Theologian Jay McDaniel puts it well. God is reaching into the world continuously, at every moment, all the time. But the fingers of God are not things you can see with your eyes. They are fresh possibilities for healing and wholeness, for love and wonder…. They come in surprising ways. Christians call them grace. Always they are healing and hopeful; the best for the situation at hand. The best may not be the ideal. In the middle of a wilderness, the best may be sheer survival, or humor, or courage, or sleep. But always it is realized hope, a fresh possibility. (internet)
To say “Christ is risen” is to say something like what writer and theologian Frederick Buechner says: Anxiety and fear are what we know best in this fantastic century of ours. [He was writing about the last century and isn’t it sad that our new century is also marked by anxiety and fear.] Wars and rumors of wars…. We have heard so much tragic news that when the good news is good we cannot hear it. But the proclamation of Easter day is that all is well…. Love is the victor…. Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream. (The Magnificent Defeat, 81)
We know all this. We trust all this, at some level, but it can be so difficult to see and affirm. You know what? It has always been difficult to get a glimpse of the working of this God of hope, joy, love and fresh possibility. At first Mary Magdalene sees nothing but an empty tomb. Confused and startled she runs for Peter and another disciple, who is not even named. They find an empty tomb and are at a loss. They go home. Mary stays and begins to gain some sight, but it is a little blurred. When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardner… I love that line in the story, “supposing him to be the gardner.” God is reaching into the world continuously, at every moment, all the time. But the fingers of God are not things you can see with your eyes. It takes Mary awhile to see the fingers of God at work.
Christ is risen, but we are in good company if at first we see nothing but the gardener. Christ is risen, and the God who raised Jesus continues to reach into the world continuously, at every moment, all the time, but we don’t always see, at least readily or easily.
Philip Gulley is a writer and Quaker pastor. He tells the story of his call to the second church he ever pastored (Home Town Tales, 174ff). He had been fired from his first church because the church did not like his theology. When he went to preach a trial sermon for his next call, he preached “a liberal sermon” thinking that the congregation, known for being more conservative, wouldn’t hire him. Among the call committee was a man named Dick. After the sermon, and after the call committee meeting, Dick broke the news to Philip. “We’ve reached agreement. We’ve agreed that none of us like your sermon. We’ve also agreed to call you to be our pastor.”
That afternoon, Dick invited Pastor Philip to play golf. Dick beat Philip by ten strokes, commenting, “A preacher who can’t preach or play golf. What have we gotten ourselves into?”
Dick and I became fast friends. When I preached a sermon he didn’t like, I was always the first to know. We golfed once a month. I never beat him. Then his elderly mother died, and I conducted her funeral. It was about then that Dick started liking my sermons. I never did figure out if it was because I was changing or because Dick was.
Philip was pastor of that particular church for four years. The year after he left, Philip ran into Dick at the hospital, and found out that Dick’s wife had died. Dick asked Philip to officiate at the funeral, and though Philip had a rule about not going back to former churches to do weddings or funerals, he made an exception. “Five years before, he’d taken a chance on me, and I figured that put me in his debt.” A couple years after that, Dick died, and Philip again officiated at the funeral.
At the funeral I talked with some folks about how Christians these days can’t seem to get along. How we fuss and fight and draw our theological lines in the sand. I told them how Dick and I were poles apart sometimes, but we’d made up our minds that disagreeing about God would never keep us from loving God’s children. It’s good to know where you stand, but it’s even better to have your heart turned toward gentleness. Dick ended up changing me in ways I needed to be changed. I’d like to think I did the same for him. Maybe that’s what God has in mind when God brings different folks together – that we each bring our scraps of truth and piece them together into this radiant quilt that is so much finer that anything we could ever have made alone.
That’s what it means to say “Christ is risen.” It is to see these small moments of hope, peace, joy, love, fresh possibilities. It is to see that God who raised Jesus continues to reach into the world continuously, at every moment, all the time, even if the fingers of God can be hard to detect. Part of our job as a community that proclaims “Christ is risen” is to help each other see, to bring our scraps of truth and insight and piece them together into this radiant quilt that is so much finer that anything we could ever have made alone. Another part of our job as a community that proclaims “Christ is risen” is to be part of the work of God in the world, to let Christ rise in us, to let Christ rise in the world through us. It doesn’t have to be a big production, just the quiet work of love, knowing that love wins.
When they left the conversation with Chekhov, they agreed that it had been a most unusual conversation. If they had been from Minnesota they may have said, “that’s different.” When we encounter the risen Christ in all those small ways that the risen Christ shows up, we are made different, made different to make a difference. Christ is risen. See it. Be it. Amen.